Vet History PhD – Introducing Jane!

This is the first of a series of blog posts by PhD student Jane Davidson, who began her studies with RCVS Knowledge and the University of Kent in Autumn 2019. Click here for more information about this project, or follow Jane’s Twitter feed and hashtag #phdbythesea

Jane Davidson

Jane Davidson

I imagine that this period of change and disruption is making many people re-evaluate their life choices, and I’m one of them. I’m so happy to say that being immersed in veterinary history is the place I would want to be right now on lockdown. So it’s pretty fabulous that I’m doing a PhD on the professionalisation of animal medicine in the UK. The PhD aims to analyse how and why the medical treatment of animals came to be professionalised. This will involve identifying the reasons for, and effects of, the 1881 Act, which formally established the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (RCVS) authority to distinguish between qualified and unqualified practitioners.

Seeing a life-changing tweet from RCVS Knowledge early last year brought together the slightly crazy path my career had been on. I read the initial proposal with interest, as I have been writing for and about the veterinary profession for some time. I checked the requirements for the PhD and I met the criteria, in a roundabout way. I did have a first degree in history, gained at Glasgow University as a young thing. I did have a level 7 qualification in my PgCert in Clinical Education, that I studied for while teaching clinical skills to vet nurses. Finally, I did have an interest in the veterinary profession, being a vet nurse, a veterinary blogger and all-round nosey historian at heart.

Digitised version of Charles Vial St Bel’s plan for a veterinary school in England – available to read on Vet History Digital Collections.

A summer of reading and writing followed, and I am now here in my garden doing much the same and loving every minute of it. I am fascinated by my findings so far, and am loving watching historical characters and situations come to life through my archive work. The connection with the people and places and events recorded by hand over 200 years ago feels very real. Noting the different handwriting, and sighing inwardly when Charles St Bel took the minutes of meetings (because of the hard work of deciphering his handwriting!) feels like I am among friends. St Bel was a lecturer from the first veterinary school in Lyon, who arrived in England with a plan to set up a similar school here. He met Granville Penn and together with the Odiham Agricultural Society created his vision with the London Veterinary College in 1791. Chatting with the great RCVS Knowledge team about ‘Charles’, ‘Fred’ and ‘Coleman’ with a warm familiarity helps with bringing these people to life.

Manuscript minutes of meetings of the Odiham Agricultural Society. whose work to advance knowledge of livestock management and breeding led towards formal veterinary education in Britain.

With the added pressures on the veterinary industry right now, I am missing clinical work and being part of a clinical team. Yet, right now, I oddly feel more connected with the veterinary profession through the people who were working in it 200 years ago. Their passions and desires jump from each page and I am proud to be here to share their stories.


Archives on your Digital Doorstop – Overcome the Lockdown!

This Friday is our Annual Royal College Day – which due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be the first to involve a virtual AGM!

The Annual General Meeting has taken place since the very beginning of the RCVS in 1844, with official announcements published in the London Gazette, and voting for new Council members recorded on a tally sheet. This event has evolved and expanded over the years, but past members could not ever have imagined it taking place over computer screens.

An original tally sheet from an early RCVS Annual General Meeting (c.1845) – Photo credit Jacob Cook

This ‘new normal’ has meant that many things have had to adapt, and archivists are no exception. As I mentioned in a recent post on our Instagram feed – it has been nearly four months since I was anywhere near our Archive collections *sob*

And while I have been missing the tangible joy of handling the fragile and yellowed papers in my care, I have still been able to read and learn from historical materials — and help others do so — via our Digital Collections.

Since our launch back in 2017, we have added new functionality to the site, and so here is a refresher of the various ways you can easily access and share content from our collections without having to leave your home:

Full-text search of printed materials

You may have noticed that a search box now appears at the bottom of each Universal Viewer. Using this, you can quickly search, locate, and navigate to specific words anywhere in the text. This is particularly effective for works like Boardman’s A Dictionary of the Veterinary Art &c (1805)

Transcriptions of manuscript correspondence

To make our manuscript material more accessible, we are working to create full transcripts that are searchable via the main site search. So far, key correspondence and case notes by Frederick Smith have been transcribed.

Example of text transcripts

Embed UV or share links to specific images

Each Universal Viewer contains code you can use to embed the UV on your own webpages. And if you want to share a link to a specific image within the work, you can expand the UV to its own tab, navigate to the right page, and copy the current URL.

Button to find embed code is on bottom left of Universal Viewer

Button to open the Universal Viewer into a new Tab

Spread the word!

All this week we will be using our social media channels, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to share highlights from our Digital Collections, and some of the positive feedback we’ve received from our audience. Come and join us!


Transcription Project Completed – thanks to our incredible volunteers!

After a successful call  for volunteers back in April to help transcribe letters from the earliest days of the profession, we have now published the results of our Volunteer Transcription Project – and they are pretty amazing!

All the letters, which were written in 1840 in support of a petition that paved the way for the formation of the RCVS, and their full transcriptions can now be accessed on our website.

We were very lucky to have contributions from 51 people over six months, fully transcribing 256 handwritten letters, to make them more easily accessible for a 21st-century reader. Here we share some insights and thoughts about the process from our fantastic team of volunteers.

Some of our fantastic volunteers!

So why did people volunteer?

One reason we were able to attract such a large number of contributors was due to many veterinary staff being put on furlough during the initial lockdown period, and therefore having more time to indulge their existing historical interests.

Debbie Summers, an RVN working in Kent, and already an avid collector of Victorian postal history, told us “I was immediately interested in this project and had some skill in deciphering Victorian handwriting which I thought could be of use.” For retired small animal vet Carol Young, the project was a way “to reconnect however slightly with the profession I still missed”. Other volunteers, such as Linda Lowseck, retired former CVO of Jersey, had a more personal connection to veterinary history, as her great-grandfather qualified as vet not long after these letters were written.

However, previous historical interest was not essential. Claire Coulthard, an RVN working in the North West of England, told us she hated history at school, but during the project realised she was “becoming interested in the letter’s contents and the people who had written them.” By the end of the project, Claire had transcribed 16 letters in the collection, more than any other volunteer.

Happily, this project just seemed to scratch an itch for some people. Ginny Kunch, a veterinary practitioner from Oregon, USA, said she was “going a bit stir-crazy when I found this project online… Also, I’m a sucker for quill and ink.

Letter from Thomas Brown, Manchester, of the 6th Dragoon Guards

Learning how to transcribe

Most of the volunteers were entirely new to reading historical material, and so were eased into the task with shorter letters, (relatively) clearer handwriting, and tips and tricks about deciphering tricky words. Debbie Summers used a combination of perseverance and luck – “Sometimes [the right word] would ‘appear’ after a while of pondering, other times it was a best guess! I have definitely improved my skills in this area from working on this project!”

Soon, however, many of the participants were up and away and asking for longer and more challenging letters. It turned out that many of the vets and vet nurses who joined us had lots of experience interpreting badly written practice notes!

Alison Skipper, a vet and PhD student researching the history of health and disease in pedigree dog breeding, also employed extra-curricular wisdom in her transcribing –  “my biggest leap of insight was in transcribing Thomas Brown’s letter, where I put my knowledge of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer to good use in working out that D. Gds. meant Dragoon Guards!

Far from being put off by the challenge of difficult handwriting, this was a big part of what Claire Coulthard enjoyed about the task – “transcribing the letters was similar to solving logic puzzles. When I completed a letter it gave me that same sense of satisfaction I get once I completed puzzles”. There was also the joy of new discoveries – finding what Claire called “little 1840 ‘isms’”, such as the more elaborate valedictions, no longer used in correspondence today.

And not all the writing was terrible! Carol Gray, a postdoctoral researcher at Liverpool University, told us that she fell in love with Belfast Vet William Taylor’s handwriting, and the correct and polite use of English across all the letters she transcribed.

Letter from William Taylor, Belfast – probably the most beautiful writing in the collection!

Reflecting on the past

All the volunteers we spoke to found their experience reading these letters gave them insight into the way the profession in 1840 compares to today. For Carol Young, the “assumptions of class or gentility” seemed outdated, but she could remember “a time when we wore white coats, male vets were required to wear ties and female vets skirts, and vets were not supposed to be addressed by their Christian names!

The main concerns of the vets in 1840, and their reasons for signing Mayer’s petition, continue to speak to the profession today. Ginny Kunch transcribed a letter from “a surgeon who indicated a concern that, in essence, the guy down the road was also claiming to provide veterinary services and, by god, what were the governors planning to do to address that particular issue! And I thought, well, that’s not unlike me now, as a practising veterinarian, trying to convince some clients that the local pet shop or human chiropractor is not an equivalent substitute for a properly qualified veterinary surgeon!

Carol Gray was interested in the drive for mandatory veterinary education and noted that “Although the profession is now well protected in terms of who can practise veterinary medicine, there are some parallels with the current drive to regulate veterinary paraprofessionals.

Letter from J Martin, Newbury, and accompanying transcription by Linda Lowseck

In a (very untidy) letter from J Martin of Newbury, Linda Lowseck identified mention of ‘Foot and Mouth Disease’, long before the disease was known by this name. For Linda, this was “yet another reminder of the gigantic increase in knowledge since 1840.

The collection of letters as a whole is a fascinating snapshot of the early days of a now well-established profession, fighting for recognition. As Alison Skipper found, “there is a sense of fraternity and cooperation in these letters – a wide variety of veterinarians, scattered right across the country, coming together to support an important cause – which also reflects the best of our sense of community today.

We are enormously grateful for the commitment and contribution of our band of volunteers on this project. Now that we have a talented pool of transcribers at our disposal, we are deciding which set of archives to set them upon next. Stay tuned to the blog for information about future projects.

You can browse the letters and their transcriptions on our Vet History Digital Collections site here.


The Veterinarian is Complete!

After starting our huge scanning project with Volume one back in January 2016, we can finally celebrate the release online of the 75th and final volume of The Veterinarian, free for everyone to read in its entirety. The Veterinarian ran from 1828 to 1902 and offers a fascinating insight into the changing veterinary thought throughout a century filled with experimentation and invention.

Click here to browse The Veterinarian online!

This celebration would not be possible without the hard and meticulous work of our Archive and Digitisation Assistants, Adele Bush (Jan-Dec 2016), Helena Clarkson (Jan 2017-Sep 2018) and Jayna Hirani (Sep 2018-Nov 2020), who together created around 65,000 scans and over 1000 sheets of metadata, listing every article title and author.

Copy of a handbill promoting ‘Pin-Cushion Jenny’, from The Veterinarian, Vol 60 No 4, April 1887

About The Veterinarian

Since the Vet History project was first proposed by RCVS Knowledge, making The Veterinarian available has been a key priority. Launched in 1828 by William Percivall and later joined by William Youatt, both critics of the London Veterinary School and eager for reform, the journal captures the birth and development of the veterinary profession in Britain and its place within the context of an explosive era of scientific discovery.

The Veterinarian was one of the major organs of discussion, debate and dissemination of new veterinary practice and theory in Britain. Each issue will typically contain accounts of specific veterinary cases, summaries of current knowledge on specific diseases or injuries, news of developments in legislation or national events, reviews of new publications, and reports from the numerous local and national veterinary societies.

Beyond the strictly veterinary, the journal also covered wider scientific developments of the time. For example, editorials and articles from 1885-1886 discuss the legal implications of Pasteur’s pioneering treatment of rabies, and early examples of ‘Röntgen photographs’ created using X-rays ‘for want of a better title’ were featured in 1897.

‘Röntgen photograph’ of a rabbit, from The Veterinarian, Vol 70 No 5, May 1897

Helping researchers find what they want

The wealth of information contained in this journal covers a very broad range of subjects and includes contributions from many of the most influential veterinary surgeons working in Britain and its colonies. As such, we have worked hard to make sure researchers can easily find and discover articles most relevant to their interests.

Every issue has been digitised individually, and with a full list of contents and article authors. We have also added tags to each issue for specific ailments, anatomy, and organisations. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most used tag on Vet History is ‘horse’, with 966 items!)

The most frequently used tags in the Digital Collections

Finally, you can also easily search for content within each issue by using the full-text search in the Universal Viewer.

One of our regular users of the Digital Collections, Sandi Howie, who is working to complete her doctoral thesis on the veterinary community in late nineteenth century Scotland, told us:

The addition of the Veterinarian to Vet History’s Digital Collections, and the keyword search facility, is transformative of historical research. Veterinary historians can for the first time readily access this key source material at any time and from anywhere. As a researcher, I can’t thank the RCVS Knowledge team enough.

A labour of love

The most recent member of the RCVS Knowledge team to take on The Veterinarian digitisation is Jayna Hirani. As the person to finally take this project over the finish line, she was both relieved and sorry to see the project end. The painstaking process of scanning, cropping, converting, uploading, tagging and creating metadata required incredible attention to detail, but also allowed Jayna to really delve into the content and get a comprehensive oversight of the concerns and preoccupations of vets in the late nineteenth century.

Jayna noticed that the main issue at this time was legitimising the profession, and protecting its reputation from unqualified practitioners, following the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1881. However, another trend was for articles about strange experiments and discoveries about what was and was not scientifically possible – such as transfusing the milk of a cow into the veins of dogs to treat fever and cholera.

Excerpt of article from The Veterinarian, Volume 52 No 1, January 1879


Other highlights suggested by Jayna demonstrate the broad variety of the content in the Journal:

An 1872 account of truffle hunting in France, using ‘pig-greyhounds’ and paying them with acorns!

Article from The Veterinarian, Volume 45 No 3, March 1872

An 1890 poem ‘The Doleful Ballad of Germs’ demonstrating that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Poem from The Veterinarian, Volume 63 No 11, November 1890

The first photograph to appear in the Veterinarian of an ox afflicted with laminitis.

Photograph from The Veterinarian, Volume 67 No 8, August 1894

Go Explore!

Issues of The Veterinarian received nearly 10,000 views in 2020, so why not explore the journal for yourself and discover articles about every weird and wonderful subject from around the world, captured through the specific lens of nineteenth-century men of letters.

Click here to browse The Veterinarian online

Guest Post – Jane Davidson: Venues of Veterinary History

As I work through the archive material for my PhD, the people and the places leap off the page and create such a vivid picture of the events I’m reading about. The places, in particular, are striking a chord with me as so many of them are in London, my home for over 20 years. I am fascinated by the history of London buildings and how they chart the rise and fall of different areas over time. The records of meeting venues has had me looking up what these buildings are used for today. Once this lockdown is over, I hope to be able to take a walking tour of the places that are becoming familiar to me as key venues in veterinary history.

At a time when the team at the RCVS are scattered to their homes to work and Belgravia House stands empty, it might seem odd to focus on places and locations. However, from the archives, it is clear that the veterinary profession is a body of people used to being an identifiable presence despite a lack of a permanent home. The RCVS has moved premises and had temporary bases in their history, and this is just a part of the process of professionalisation that will continue with the move from Belgravia House that is planned.

Freemasons’ Tavern

The first recorded venue for meetings of the RCVS is The Freemasons Tavern, in use regularly since 1844. On Great Queen Street in Lincolns Inn Fields, the street is probably known to many now as a quick route from Holborn tube to Covent Garden. I have used this route many times to avoid the inevitable tourist crush at Covent Garden. It’s an unusually wide and open street in an area where the buildings are usually packed in tightly together. The stone used for the buildings on the western side of the street is a very light colour and this adds to the feeling of space. Compared to the narrow streets and damp looking dark red London brick of the surrounding streets, my memories of the street are that it is always sunny. The street houses many buildings related to the Freemasons and this has allowed a coordinated approach to building layout and design, which shows in the street’s different style from the earlier buildings around it. Now the site of the Connaught Rooms, the building of 1844 has been rebuilt several times. A popular meeting place that has been used by many associations, it is perhaps most famous for being the venue for the first meetings of the Football Association. A Freemasons Tavern still exists but is now on Long Acre, just around the corner.

Official notice of the first RCVS Annual General Meeting in The Gazette

The Freemasons Tavern was advertised as the meeting place for the newly formed RCVS. This was put into several papers in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, and the meetings were a mix of private matters for the College but also a way to engage with the public.

Red Lion Square

The minutes of an RCVS meeting in 1846 noted a lack of finance as the reason for the RCVS not having a permanent location for their sole use as a corporation. It was in 1853 that the RCVS made 10 Red Lion Square their first home. A previously notorious area, it had been transformed into a gated square and by the early eighteenth century was used for both residential and professional purposes. The business users were medics and lawyers, and so the veterinary profession was to join established professions in the neighbourhood. From the RCVS building in Red Lion Square, we have the stained glass Coat of Arms of the RCVS and the veterinary schools, which are currently in the reception of Belgravia House. These windows have followed the College through three different buildings over the years, and you can read more about their history elsewhere on this blog.

The Coat of Arms of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, on display in the reception at Belgravia House

The RCVS remained at Red Lion Square for over a century, apart from interruptions during the Second World War when the library remained in Red Lion Square but other RCVS activities were temporarily moved to Wembley. The bombing raids of May 1941 saw the assistant librarian Miss Molly Raymer go to the building to check on it after the night of bombing. More worried about water damage, she reported being met with a torrent of water coming through the library ceiling! Red Lion Square is still there, and the buildings are beautiful, but sadly numbers 9 and 10 are no longer standing. However, it is still worth a visit as, despite more modern buildings taking its place, it still has the air of a grand London garden square.

Painted engraving of Red Lion Square in 1800

Walk the History

A walk between these three places provides a wonderful way to see much of London. Red Lion Square to Horseferry Road is around a 45-minute walk and you can incorporate many London landmarks. The Freemasons Tavern to Red Lion Square is a shorter 10-minute walk. It is possible to spend a pleasant afternoon walking the history of the places of the RCVS from Red Lion Square to Belgravia House – missing out on the need to go to the wartime home of Wembley!


Edward Coleman lectures – a 200-year-old time capsule of veterinary science

Screenshot of digitised and transcribed version of Coleman’s introductory lecture, on the Digital Collections website

Two hundred years ago today – which was a Monday not a Friday – students attended the Introductory Lecture of the 1821/1822 session at the London Veterinary College, now known as the Royal Veterinary College.

The lecture was delivered by Edward Coleman, Professor of the College, and thanks to notes of the lecture taken by student Edmund Gabriel, we can know exactly what he taught.

Gabriel’s notes from this lecture, and over 70 others, are held in our collections and are now being digitised, transcribed, and made available to all via our Digital Collections.

Plaster bust of Edward Coleman, on display in the Members’ Room at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

The teacher

Edward Coleman (1766-1839) was a medical surgeon, with no veterinary training, who became head of the veterinary school in 1794, and Principal Veterinary Surgeon to the Army in 1796. He held both posts until his death in 1839. After the sudden death of the College’s first Professor, Charles Vial de St Bel, in 1793, Edward Coleman and William Moorcroft were jointly appointed to rescue the fledgling institution, which was mired in financial difficulties. Moorcroft resigned after only a few weeks, possibly due to a desire to focus on his private practice, or due to conflict with Coleman.

Reports of Coleman describe him as ‘mercurial’, but an intelligent man, and a gifted teacher. However, Frederick Smith, one of his severest critics, complained that his lack of veterinary experience, and fierce resistance to change, impeded the progress of the veterinary profession for decades. What is certain is that Coleman dominated the veterinary sphere in Britain for over 40 years, and greatly contributed to the growth of the profession in the early 19th century. Growth that would eventually lead to its reform and the creation of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Engraving of the Royal Veterinary College, published in The Farrier and Naturalist journal, January 1828

The course

St Bel’s original plan for the College was a 3-year course, for boarding students, with an admission fee of 20 guineas (equivalent to around £1700 today). During Coleman’s time, the course length was eventually reduced to as little as 3 to 4 months, with the expectation that students would also attend lectures on comparative anatomy and pathology at medical schools.

Students could then attend a viva voce examination by a board of prominent medical men, held quarterly at the Freemason’s Tavern. We know of at least 15 men who passed their examination in 1822, including Edmund Gabriel, the scribe of this collection of lecture notes.

Portrait of Edmund Gabriel, donated to the RCVS in 1883

The student

After graduating, Edmund Gabriel (1800-1864), seems to have remained in London, with his address listed as Fetter Lane, off Fleet Street. Later, in 1844, he became the first Secretary of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, where his distinctive sloping handwriting can be seen in the first book of Minutes of the Council.

When the RCVS first moved into 10 Red Lion Square in 1853, Gabriel resided there for a portion of his annual honorarium. In 1856, he was elected veterinary surgeon for the RSPCA. He remained Secretary until ill-health forced his resignation in 1861, and died in 1864. His obituary in The Veterinarian describes him as “active and energetic in mind, gentlemanly in his demeanour… and was respected most by those who knew him best.”

Screenshot of first page of Lecture 9 – Structure, ecomony and diseases of the bones.

The lectures

Gabriel’s notes comprise of 77 lectures, delivered from the 12th November 1821 to 19th June 1822. They almost completely relate to horses only, with the occasional mention of other species as a point of comparison. Most comparisons are made between equine and human anatomy and pathology, which is perhaps unsurprising, due to Coleman’s medical background, and the assumed medical experience of many of the students.

Extract from Frederick Smith’s list of subjects of Coleman’s Lectures

The lectures provide a fascinating snapshot of veterinary education, and general scientific knowledge, at the time. This was 10 years before Darwin sailed on HMS Beagle, and before the term ‘scientist’ was coined by William Whewell. Coleman taught that everything that happened in the body was for a purpose, even if that purpose could not yet be observed. The lectures include frequent mentions of trials and experiments carried out and the conclusions that are drawn from the results. For example, in Lecture 3, which relates to blood, Coleman speculates as to the cause of coagulation. At this stage, science is aware of red blood cells, but this was still the early days of microscopy, and it would not be possible to view platelets until higher-resolution microscopes were developed several years later. Similarly, in Lecture 4, Coleman says of glands:

“We know but little of their functions but those must be either something added or abstracted, we cannot suppose they should enter them for nothing, why do they go through them at all unless for some particular purpose”

The discovery of hormones and a wider understanding of endocrinology would arrive several decades in the future.

The transcriptions

As well as digitising all these lectures to add to the Digital Collections, we have begun the lengthy process of fully transcribing the text to make them even more accessible. Several volunteers who contributed to last year’s transcription project have gamely agreed to tackle Gabriel’s handwriting and lend their experience and veterinary expertise to help decipher more obscure anatomical terms that are a mystery to me!

Twenty of the lectures are uploaded already, and so far, five of them have transcriptions available. More will be added in the coming months – so watch this space!


A Christmas Gift to the Future of the Veterinary Professions

This Christmas, we are launching an appeal to raise funds for vital conservation work to restore one of the most fragile items in our Historical Collection – the Volume of Incoming Letters, 1868–1877.

Correspondence pasted inside the Volume of Incoming Letters

This huge bound volume is a fascinating window into the veterinary profession in the late 19th century, covering nine years in over 1400 letters. In these letters, we can hear the voices of vets as they write to the RCVS with their concerns and ideas, and as the battle for greater recognition of the value of veterinary expertise is fought in Britain. Each letter written to the RCVS is meticulously numbered, pasted into the volume, with an annotated summary of the reply written by the Secretary.

Visible damage to the edges of pages inside the Volume

Specialist repair

In 1900, George Fleming MRCVS donated his personal library of over 600 volumes, with the instruction that they were to be “accessible to every member who desires to refer to them”.

Since then, the Collections have been moved and handled by vets in three different locations. They survived the Blitz. However, this accessibility has meant that the most used items have suffered the brunt of the damage.

There is a lot that we can do to protect fragile items – but occasionally, some material needs specialist care so we can continue to make it available to the public.

The Secretary’s decision to file the letters in this way is fascinating and impressive, but very impractical for regular use. The original leather binding and the spine are now badly damaged by wear and tear. The Volume needs cleaning, and many individual letters are torn or damaged.

We have estimated that repairing the Volume will require around 50 hours of specialised conservation work. This would also include the creation of a bespoke box for safer storage and handling.

The original leather binding is starting to come away from the spine of the Volume

A vital resource

Jane Davidson, a PhD student and RVN, is studying the development of the British veterinary profession, and recently viewed the volume as part of her research.

“The letters have added an amazing layer of personal information not available in meeting minutes – protecting them for future research is essential to veterinary history.”

The letters show, she adds, that there was already a global value to being an MRCVS during the mid-Victorian era.

“[There are] numerous and regular letters from overseas. These include from India, Mauritius, and multiple from across the United States of America.”

International correspondence to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

What you can do

You can help support this essential restoration work by making a donation to our Christmas appeal today. You can choose to make a one-off gift or give to us regularly each month. Anything you can spare will contribute to ensuring we can help preserve the past for the veterinary surgeons and nurses of tomorrow.

Our new (temporary) home!

The entrance to the City of Westminster Archives Centre

Following the sale of Belgravia House, and the decision to vacate the premises by the end of March 2022, the Archives and Library teams at RCVS Knowledge have had a busy few months safely moving all the Library, Archive and artwork collections into secure storage, and to our new temporary office at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. (We shared photos and videos from the moving process on our Instagram feed, under the hashtag #vethistoryrelocation )

Although many RCVS and RCVS Knowledge staff are able to continue working from home, or at office space rented in Chancery Lane, in order to run our Archive and Library service effectively, an additional more specialist space was required.

Shelves of our most frequently used journals

We were very fortunate in finding accommodation for us, and our priority collections, not too far from Belgravia House at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. Stretching over 150 linear metres of shelving, we’ve brought with us our most frequently used books and journals, and key archive documents such as Council Minutes, Rolls of Members, examination records, and correspondence.

Shelves of RCVS Council Minutes, Rolls of Members and other frequently used archive items

Here at COWAC, the archive store is to the highest standard for preserving our fragile and unique documents. We also have use of the searchroom, which can accommodate more readers than previously possible in Belgravia House, from Tuesdays to Thursdays 10am to 4pm.

The public searchroom at the City of Westminster Archives Centre

As some of our collections are held offsite in storage, we require advance notice ahead of any researchers planning to visit. To find out more about how to get to COWAC, and the treasures in their own collections, visit their website here:

In the near future, the Vet History team plan to search the COWAC collections for records that shed light on the veterinary practitioners working in and around Westminster over the centuries. We’ll share any highlights with you here!

As always, you can search our collections via the Archive and Library catalogues, or view digitised content on the Digital Collections website. If you would like to view any of our material in the searchroom, or have research questions, please contact us via email


A snapshot of British veterinary practice in 1882

One of my favourite parts of our Archives is the extensive collection of applications for Existing Practitioner status, sent to the RCVS in 1882. After the arduous work carried out seven years ago to sort and list the 859 separate applications, I am very excited to now begin making these fascinating documents more accessible to the public via our Digital Collections website.

Part of the application submitted by William Bevys Bennett of Abergavenny

“Existing Practitioners” not “Veterinary Surgeons”

Clare’s previous blog post describes the background to the Existing Practitioner status in more detail. In brief, each of the applications was sent by a man practising veterinary surgery in Britain, but not a member of the RCVS, and who likely hadn’t ever attended a veterinary school. The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1881 legally distinguished the difference between MRCVS and unqualified practitioners, who could no longer claim the title ‘veterinary surgeon’. The creation of a fixed list of ‘Existing Practitioners’ served to prevent skilled men from losing their livelihood.

The complete list of Existing Practitioners, as it appeared in the RCVS Register 1883, can be viewed on our website at the link above.

Community connections

We receive many enquiries from descendants of veterinary surgeons and are able to provide information as recorded on the Register over time. However, I am always glad when I discover that the enquirer’s ancestor is actually an Existing Practitioner rather than an MRCVS, as in many cases there are supporting references alongside their application forms. These letters from local farmers, landowners, doctors and clergymen often provide an extra level of insight into the working life of the applicant, and his connections within the community in which he lived and contributed.

For example, the application of William Henry Arthy includes a detailed letter of reference from the ‘Assistant Horse Superintendent’ of the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company. Mr Llewellyn recounts that Mr Arthy’s attention helped all their horses recover from a bout of Influenza and Strangles the previous spring.

“I believe him to be highly respectable, trustworthy, honest & steady” – Letter of reference for W H Arthy from Mr Llewellyn, 14 Apr 1882

Another intriguing application is that of Frederick George Baker, who missed the ‘early bird’ offer of only three Guineas application fee as it was submitted before April 1882, and so had to pay double the amount in December. In a letter to the RCVS, he says, “it is rather awkward to get old of money just before Christmas” and wants to know how much time he can take to gather the funds. He contacted R C Trigger MRCVS to ask him to help him with the fee, and although we do not know how they are connected, and Trigger himself writes to Baker that he “quite fails to see that you have any claim upon me”, he offers to contribute one sovereign to his fee.

“I have not been able at present to make the amount up. Will you kindly let me know the longest time I shall be allowed to obtain it.” Letter to RCVS Secretary from Frederick George Baker, 14 Dec 1882

Digitising the applications

The above are just two examples of the hundreds of stories that can be found in this collection. As part of our ongoing digitisation project, I will take a sample of the collection, digitise the individual documents for each application and upload them to our Digital Collections website. So far ten are already viewable on the website, but more will be added over time. I aim to get at least 10% of the applications uploaded initially, including those which contain the most correspondence and supporting papers.

Take a look at the applications uploaded so far and explore this rich source of British social and veterinary history.


Aleen Cust – the first woman to join the veterinary profession, 100 years ago today!

Photograph of Aleen Cust, c. 1927

One hundred years ago today, on the 20th December 1922, Aleen Cust became the first female MRCVS. To mark this significant event in the history of the British veterinary profession, we have digitised documents from our archives that tell Cust’s story. It begins with her unsatisfactory first encounter with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons back in 1897, when she first applied to sit an RCVS examination.

Read the full story on our website, and view the documents in our Digital Collections.

– Lorna –